Visions of England in Literature of the First World War
The literary output associated with the First World War —in particular the poetry— is unsurprisingly marked by imaginings of home, from the perspective of the soldier at the front as well as from that of those awaiting his return. This essay explores some representative depictions of England in the literature of the time (and in a few works written afterwards). These vary from highly specific evocations of a beloved place to vaguer signifiers. What most of them have in common, however, is a heightened intensity that stands in opposition to Larkin’s later, bitter summing-up of an indifferent countryside in August 1914.
AT THE FRONT
The popularity of A. E. Housman’s alarmingly prophetic poetry collection A Shropshire Lad (1896) amongst the troops at the front has been remarked upon many times before. It is therefore not surprising that its influence can be discerned in First World War poetry. Its portrayal of a doomed soldier’s relationship to his home town in The Recruit (“And go, and luck go with you/While Ludlow tower shall stand”) is mirrored in Siegfried Sassoon’s The Redeemer in which the Christ-like young soldier suffers and dies to secure the safety of Lancaster on Lune. The parallels as well as the divergences between the two poems are arresting. Both soldiers are affectively tied to towns far outside the range of a traditionally narrow Southern Arcadianism: Ludlow, a Western market town, and Lancaster, the county town of Cumbria. While the intimate relationship between protagonist and home in both is evident, Ludlow figures as a protective and empathetic presence in the Housman poem (“Go, and luck go with you/While Ludlow tower shall stand….Oh Ludlow town will miss you/When you are dead and gone”), while in Sassoon’s work the young soldier sees himself as ensuring the survival of his home town. The focus away from more stereotypical heartlands allows both poems to achieve immediacy and authenticity, and renders the synecdoche effect in Sassoon’s poem more poignant —the young soldier is everyman, Lancaster represents all the home towns.
An opposite effect is achieved by Edward Thomas in Home ("Fair was the morning..."), evoking an England characterised by an intense localism that now seems remote to us. Soldiers from three different counties discuss the titular concept and find that their origins in three widely separated counties divide them: they are not friends and are brought together only by the artificial union of war. This is an evocation of regional alienation rather than national unity. Indeed, Thomas’s wartime output is generally wintry in its outlook for England, a country in which rural custom is swept away by total war, where young men and their sweethearts will no longer gather blossom at Eastertide (In Memoriam, Easter 1915), and the call of the owl is heard at night, a premonition of war deaths (The Owl). Thomas’s most famous poem, Adlestrop, which is commonly associated with the War, was in fact written in June 1914 (two months before the outbreak), and captures a moment of intense spiritual absorption into a particular England. As the narrator sits in a deserted branch-line station, choruses of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire birds are prompted by the song of a solitary blackbird. This extreme identification with a home region can also be found —most famously perhaps—in the works of Ivor Gurney, of which one collection, published in 1917, is aptly entitled Severn and Somme. Gurney is unusual among the war poets in that he was a private soldier rather than an officer, a fact shyly acknowledged in the preface to this work (“I never was famous, and a Common Private makes but little show”), which may be connected to his extreme homesickness for and passionate identification with his native Gloucestershire; unlike many officers, he had never been sent away to school. For Gurney, writing poetry about his home county while at the front was a means of keeping encroaching manic depression at bay and dealing with the grief of losing comrades. The preface to Severn and Somme shows his awareness that his poetry is a monument to his love of “my county, Gloucester, that whether I die or live stays always with me—being in itself so beautiful, so full of memories; whose people are so good to be friends with, so easy-going and so frank.” The book is primarily aimed at other local people: “people of Gloucester….may well be indulgent to one who thought of them so often, and whose images of beauty in the mind were always of Gloucester, county of Cotswold and Severn, and a plain rich, blossomy, and sweet of airs —as the wise Romans knew, who made their homes in exile by the brown river, watching the further bank for signs of war.”
Gurney’s attachment is historical, pantheistic, sensuous, and remarkably intense: “There is a curve of Glo’ster plough/That I was born alone to show” (Defiance). His instinct for listing and thereby holding fast to much-missed places and things is evident in The Fire Kindled, which lovingly enumerates and describes Framilode, Redmarley, Cranham, and Malvern, and a similar effect is produced in Trees, “Where Coopers stands by Cranham,” as well as in the sonnet Homesickness which yearns for “familiar lovely places…../Where birds are, and flowers, as violet, and wren/ Blackbird, bluebell, hedge-sparrow, tiny daisies.” In Afterwards, the devoted shades of fallen soldiers haunt their friends on “paths they loved together”: “The troubled heart shall know a presence near,/Friendly, familiar, and the old grief gone.” One of his best known poems, Strange Service, focusses on the traumatic rupture between the sweetness of a childhood home “Under the Cotswold hills beside the water meadows” and the “dreadful service” that the soldier must render it abroad. In The Signaller’s Vision, a profoundly touching poem, the soldier at the front in the “rainy winter dusk” is suddenly arrested by the mental vision of the tea-table at home and the faces of his mother and sisters. Letters captures the joy and relief of receiving missives from relatives (“The grey-faced heaven joy does cover/With love, and God once more seems kind”). During the bombardment in Strafe Gurney keeps sane by remembering “Maisemore’s laughing linnet.” The impatience of homesickness is captured in Time and the Soldier, in which he aches to see again “Severn valley clouds/Like banners streaming.” A similar sentiment is expressed in June-to-come, in which the poet anticipates a summer walk in which “the sun’s fire and gold/Sets the bee humming” and he and a friend will “drift/And stand and gaze,” astounded at how, during the war, they managed to exist at all “without Minsterworth.” Gurney’s best-known poem, To His Love, is often anthologised and contains memories of places in Gloucestershire beloved of the dead soldier, concluding “cover him over/With violets of pride/Purple from Severn side.”
In interesting contrast to Thomas’s picture of regional alienation, Gurney’s own intense identification with his home gives him a loving sympathy with soldiers from other British and English nations and regions. This is shown by the tragic Scots, a memorial to soldiers who yesterday were “so blithe and proud” and today lie dying in agony. The similarly elegiac The Silent One for a fellow soldier who had died on the barbed wire and “for his hours of life had chattered through/Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent” contrasts the man’s local dialect with the speech of an incompetent and untrustworthy officer type with “the politest voice,” a “finicking accent” shorn of any regional identification. Perhaps the most poignant example of this sympathetic transference on Gurney’s part is First Time In from Rewards of Wonder, in which the English soldiers stumble upon “a Welsh colony/Hiding in sandbag ditches, whispering consolatory/Soft foreign things.” These extremely young Welsh soldiers, described by Gurney as “but boys,” extend a sweet-natured hospitality to their English visitors in their “low huts candle-lit,” sharing their precious rations with them and singing them Welsh folk songs (including David of the White Rock, the famous lament of the harpist on his deathbed, and the Slumber Song). Their “kind welcome” transports Gurney and his companions back in thought to the country that borders his beloved Gloucestershire, “So that we looked out as from the edge of home.” Gurney’s intense homesickness leads him to dismiss, in Spring. Rouen, May 1917, France’s rural beauty as a chimera compared with that of England: “To me these are but shadows…/All loveliness of France is but a husk.” After all, as he points out with unwitting comedy, France is “French and set apart for ever.” The poem then develops into a triumphalist vision of victory and the return of the living and the dead to England, “Mother of Beauty, Mistress of the Sea.” The effect is so overwrought that the reader suspects that Gurney may have been contending with a manic episode at the time.
This sentiment diverges greatly from the works of Edmund Blunden, who famously characterised himself as “a harmless young shepherd in a soldier’s coat” and was nostalgic for a pre-industrial, feudal England. He easily transfers the English pastoralist gaze to French subject matter. This is true of his limpid prose as well of his poetry, and an example from his memoir Undertones of War illustrates this beautifully: “the lizard ran warless in the warm dust; and the ditches were trembling with odd tiny fish, in worlds as remote as Saturn.” Through the use of a ruralist English idiom in this new environment, Blunden highlights the perversity and brutality of war: “On the blue and lulling mist of evening, proper to the nightingale, the sheep-bell, and falling waters, the strangest phenomena of fire inflicted themselves.” Blunden’s outlook afforded him a (comparatively) higher level of psychological resilience, with an ability to make ‘home’ and appreciate beauty on traditional terms in the foreign landscapes and modern conflict scenes in which he found himself. Another example of Blunden’s prose in the chapter “A Home from Home,” about a war-shattered French village written partially and ironically in the style of a guidebook, contains moments of introspective beauty: “It was the weather when leaves begin to turn, and sing a little drily in the wind; when spiders apparently spend the night in making webs on fences; and when the distances dare assume the purple as the sunset dislimns.” Amongst his war poems, Perch Fishing contains a meditative and detailed description of two friends engaging in this profoundly English activity which harkens back to Walton, and only makes clear at the end that the poem is really an elegy for one of them.
A powerful and complicated relationship to home is brought out in Wilfred Owen’s famous poem Exposure. Here the fantasy of the dead’s return is bitterly dashed:
“Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glazed With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there; For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs; Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed, – We turn back to our dying.”
Nevertheless, it is to preserve these very scenes that the soldiers must carry on: “Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;/Nor ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit…./ Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born”.
Perhaps the most moving example of English pastoralism in First World War poetry is Outward Bound by Nowell Oxland, killed in action at Gallipoli in 1915. This little known poem develops from detailed reminiscences of specific places in Oxland’s beloved Cumbrian fells — “There’s a waterfall I’m leaving/Running down the rocks in foam,/There’s a pool for which I’m grieving/Near the water-ouzel’s home”— to a dream of return after death, which must be quoted in full:
“We shall pass in summer weather, We shall come at eventide, When the fells stand up together And all quiet things abide; Mixed with cloud and wind and river, Sun-distilled in dew and rain, One with Cumberland for ever We shall go not forth again.”
Similarly, in Sassoon’s The Death Bed, the dying soldier returns home in hallucinations of rowing on placid waters, and feels his life gently washed away by a warm English summer rain.
Visions of England also occur with great frequency in the works of those waiting for the soldiers’ return, usually women. Interestingly, these are rather vague compared with the evocations in the troops’ own literary output. This is simply logical: those at home had no need to summon it up in photographic and sensuous immediacy. Instead, their descriptions are often a prompt to guilt at being in such surroundings while loved ones are suffering at the front, or they have an unreality about them, with a beauty portrayed as impossible or perverse, given what the troops are enduring. Charlotte Mew in June, 1915 contrasts the innocence of a small child in “a green sunny lane” with the horror unfolding in France. In Margaret Postgate Cole’s The Falling Leaves from November 1915, the brown leaves that fall in great numbers implicitly represent the troops at the front; this is similar to May Wedderburn Cannan’s August 1914 in which a blackbird symbolises the soul of a fallen soldier. In Perhaps, a bereaved Vera Brittain hopes that she may one day again enjoy shimmering summer woods, crimson roses and autumn harvest fields. Wedderburn Cannan contemplates a life After the War in which the terrace, sky, hills and summer are all the same, but the beloved soldier has been replaced by another man. Most agonising of all is the famous Reported Missing by Anna Gordon Keown, in which the quiet house, in its surroundings of twilight peace, cradles the memory of the poem’s kind and humorous hero. In his bedroom the cut lilac flowers somehow reject the notion that he could possibly be dead. The small boys who, in the dusk beyond the house, are gathering watercress represent the missing soldier and the poet’s inability to protect him.
Most unusually, an aged Thomas Hardy in The Pity of It, while walking in “loamy Wessex lanes, afar/From rail-track and from highway”, is stricken by the linguistic similarities between German and the local dialect as spoken “In field and farmstead,” in a remarkable conflation of home with enemy territory. He calls down a curse on those responsible for war between “folk kin tongued even as we are.”
What accounts of home in poetry from the period of the war itself usually have in common is the home’s inviolate nature, its character as a refuge. This is in marked contrast to poetry about the psychological effects of the war in works written after it was concluded -- many returning soldiers could not help but bring the trauma home with them. This is captured in a number of famous poems. In Repression of War Experience by Sassoon, the protagonist watches the painful progress of a large, disoriented moth, and is aware of a sense of expectancy in the garden outside, captured in a verse that horrifies with its quietness. Home is no longer a place of refuge, but has been invaded by the poet’s demons. Similarly, in Blunden’s The Midnight Skaters, the threat of death that lurks beneath the ice drives the skaters to whirl and glide in a frenzy of mad defiance, out of tune with a placid English winter landscape of hop-poles and ice-covered ponds. Most moving of all, perhaps, is 1916 Seen From 1921, in which Blunden finds that the green English places where he was once at home now alienate him. He feels dead within himself, without the company of the men whom he loved and away from the French rural scenes where they were together -- an ironic reversal indeed. Blunden’s longing for a continuity in the face of modern English history’s most traumatic rupture is also captured movingly in Forefathers, one of the most beautiful of all English pastoral poems.
This selective and impressionistic overview of various Englands in literature of the First World War shows that these were geographically extremely various, ranging from Oxland’s Cumberland to Gurney’s Gloucestershire. This strong tendency towards expression of local identities is intriguing, though it would probably be mistaken to see anything political in it. Instead, the evocation of particular counties, towns, and hearths allowed the soldiers at the front to cling to the comfort of memories, while the small domestic worlds depicted in the work of the women who waited for them symbolised the hope of their return. The intense emotional connection between the soldiers and the sad shires which had sacrificed them for the national honour is palpable throughout, and the psychological dislocation of the men after their return is tragically conveyed by the later works.--Isabel Taylor